As we welcome in the Chinese New Year, we reflect on the intrinsic value Chinese international student recruitment brings to the UK and its higher education institutions, not only in terms of revenue, but also bringing with it a well-educated and highly motivated student cohort. China accounts for the lion’s share of UK-international enrolments. The success of this relationship depends as much on the UK’s highly regarded quality of education as it does on trust and consistency in bilateral partnerships.  

In the ever-changing landscape of international education, IDP enters 2023 with renewed vigour and focus on how we can continue to nurture this valuable relationship going forward, respond to the challenges that lay ahead and enhance visibility in China for a broader and more inclusive range of UK universities. To do this, we need to reimagine the way we approach Chinese international student recruitment to ensure it continues to remain a valued market in the 2023 recruitment process; moreover, the UK continues to remain a desirable and relevant destination. 

Appearances can be deceiving

Although the UK remains the top destination for Chinese students, the landscape is shifting, and UK institutions need to remain vigilant when trying to either retain or establish new relationships with this market. The post-pandemic bounce back from China has not been as robust as other markets. Despite universities reaching volume targets from this region, we believe that this does not necessarily reflect the true reality on the ground. Although universities with high volumes of Chinese students may be seeing an increase in applications, we do not believe this results in a similar level of enrolments, primarily because the same number of students are simply making more applications. 

According to our IDP colleagues in China and counsellors, who work closely to support students on the ground, there is increased anxiety and uncertainty among students when applying to the UK. In part, this is due to students concerns around UK universities being perceived to have quotas or limitations on the number of Chinese students they will accept. They are also concerned about the strict entry requirements and the necessary grade point average (GPA) needed. As a result, students have developed the mindset that, to successfully secure an offer with at least one university, they must apply to multiple universities; in some cases, applying for multiple courses within the same university. One prospective student might generate ten potential offers, only able to accept one.  

Hence, the current model is not sustainable, nor does it serve the interest of students or universities. It seems quotas are counterproductive and distort the real number of applications which convert into enrolments, not to mention cause unnecessary anxiety for applicants which fuels over-subscription. IDP China, believe that enrolments from this valuable market could decrease annually if the current status quo is not addressed and a new model adopted. 

According to Venice Yun, Destination Director, IDP China:  

“China is a huge, while complicated market which is worth long-term investment. Considering Chinese students usually prepare overseas study 2–3 years in advance, the pipeline of recruitment will be built at least two years ahead of the actual enrolment season. Therefore, keeping a consistent market message is crucial for institutions to maintain future students’ interest. A continuous China strategy is also essential for a sustainable agent partnership.”    

Institutions need to take a long-term view when looking at strategies in managing supply and demand issues with China and avoid falling into the trap of short-termism. Just as universities attempt to rebalance and diversify their student cohorts, Chinese students are also diversifying their options. Prolonged periods of lockdown have changed the way some Chinese students envisage higher education and are no longer just looking to the Global North as their ‘go to’ destinations. Lured by reputable institutions, great facilities and better value for money, this market is beginning to choose destinations closer to home such as Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Japan. Post-pandemic, these destinations are becoming more attractive for their regional proximity, affordability, perceptions of safety and how welcoming they are to Chinese students.  

China is also, now, the largest global hub for transnational education (TNE), meaning some students no longer need to travel abroad to acquire an international qualification. This option has increased in popularity partly due to Covid and concerns around health and well-being. According to our Emerging Futures 2 data set, this cohort of students are also worried about student welfare in the UK, rating us as 6.4/10, in contrast to Indian students who rate the UK as 8.2/10 for student welfare. When asked: “What is your perception of each country on the welfare of international students?” The UK performed better than other top destinations; however, the findings illustrate the continued concerns felt by this market.  

Furthermore, when asked: “How interested are you in different study modes?” only 60% of Chinese students were “very interested” in on-campus study in person overseas, compared to the average of 84% from other source markets. This cohort are much more open to blended learning, with 37% saying they were “very interested” in fully online study, in contrast to only 18% from other source markets.

Demand for higher-ranking universities

Domestic policies in China, such as the household registration system or ‘Hukou’ system, inadvertently, encourages students to apply to the top 100 ranking universities worldwide. This is because students’ domestic mobility is dependent on where their household is registered. For example, those students who are born outside of the major economic hubs of Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou, will need to possess a degree from a top-ranking university should they wish to live and work in those cities. Around 800,000 students who studied overseas in 2020, returned to China hoping to find a job, potential employers, such as state-owned enterprises, technology and finance companies used ‘target listed overseas universities’ to filter the large volumes of applicants in their recruitment process.  

Moreover, despite China’s recent reopening, the economy is predicted to remain sluggish until it recalibrates supply and demand issues, the housing market, high-youth unemployment (nearly one in five people in China aged between 16–24 is unemployed), and the reduction in private sector jobs. Generation Z are now looking more towards public sector roles or roles within government state-owned enterprises for security and longevity. Either way, there is a marked shift in career trajectories in response to the country’s economic challenges. This January, approximately 2.6 million young Chinese will attend test centres across the country vying for the limited 37,100 entry-level public sector roles. Students from all levels of society, from China’s most elite universities to those who have studied overseas, will compete for a coveted role in China’s civil service. Those students most likely to be selected, will have either attended one of China’s elite universities or one of the top 100 ranking universities worldwide.  

However, as China’s economy slows, and financial constraints begin to bite, Chinese students are welcoming opportunities to study at universities which offer more economical tuition fees. Furthermore, a reduction in white-collar jobs in China, means post-study work visas can act as an incentive. Students are also attracted by the research programmes on offer and quality of STEM subjects in a particular university, not necessarily the university’s overall ranking. There are opportunities for lower-ranking universities to have a slice of the Chinese pie if they can demonstrate their strengths in subject fields, research facilities, student welfare and post-studies work opportunities.  

One of the UK’s strengths is that its postgraduate and undergraduate courses are shorter in comparison to other top destinations. A one-year master’s degree and a three-year bachelor's degree, makes the UK highly competitive and perceived as better value for money and time. In addition, Chinese students are attracted by the UK’s flexible study options, whereby students may complete two years of their undergraduate course at a Chinese university and then transfer those credits, completing their final year in the UK as a ‘top up.’ The option of ‘top up’ courses can make overseas study financially more viable. It also enables students to establish themselves in the UK for their final year of their degree, and then look for a post-graduate offer while in situ. 

Over the past 30 years, China has grown to be a major player on the global stage. It no longer looks to other countries and cultures for influence as it has now become an ‘influencer.’ What are the implications for international student recruitment from this region? It would seem the range of higher education options for Chinese international students are only increasing and they are beginning to vote with their feet. Although the UK continues to remain the favourite study destination for this cohort, it must be mindful of growing international competition within the sector; with this brings challenges and opportunities. 

Reducing application volumes for over-subscribed Universities

IDP aims to reduce the number of applications made by a single student, while offering reassurance to students that they have an ‘offer in principle’ on a course through our FastLane service available to students. Combining the support of our counsellors on the ground and the latest technology, we try get the right student into the right institution. Should a student be unsuccessful in their first-choice, the data generated by the student, will help them to quickly find an alternative offer, thus, fostering our student-first approach. 

 A further factor affecting the application process is students often wait until June, when university ranking data is released, to make their final decision. Again, this adds to uncertainty for universities when dealing with this market. IDP’s ‘offer in principle’ is only open for one month, thus, requiring a certain level of commitment on behalf of the student. Destination Director at IDP, China, Venice Yun, reiterates that:  

“If students don’t respond to our offer in principle, they are not likely to accept an official offer; however, once students have applied with FastLane through IDP’s WeChat app, our experienced counsellors will speak to the students, invite them to our exhibition event to meet with the university’s local rep. This will create a better engagement process and improve the conversion rate.” 

To find out how our FastLane service can help your institution view our client story Exploring FastLane with University of Hertfordshire.  

Increasing applications for under-subscribed universities

While we are aware that some institutions may feel over-subscribed by this market, other UK universities may feel underrepresented. Depending on your institution requirements, we optimise our global channels on social, website and email which can influence students at every phase of the funnel. Our partners and counsellors on the ground in China actively promote UK institutions using platforms such as: Little Red Book, Bilibili, Weibo and Tik Tok, to reach a more economically and regionally diverse audience. Currently, IDP China are running several campaigns on social media platforms to boost brand awareness for UK institutions with less competitive rankings by highlighting topics such as: affordability, scholarships, job-orientated teaching, and employment assistance — where they may have an advantage. 

To find out more about Fastlane and how we can help support your China recruitment strategy, reach out to your IDP Connect Client Director now or contact us here. 


Gemma Smith23 January 2023